The High(Low) Speed Rail Tango - Part 2

The California High Speed Rail Plan is moving along slowly, bit by bit, with some obstacles and pauses, but still making progress. Last week we looked at the new Business Plan and potential alternatives to the current phase one construction over Tehachapi Pass on to Palmdale.

Let's step back a moment, and look at one aspect of High Speed Rail - the travel time. First we'll look at travel time compared to flying, driving, taking high speed rail the entire distance between San Francisco, and finally the travel time after phase one is completed.

In the chart below, you can see a direct comparison of the three major modes. Many Californians have taken the drive or the flight between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area. When driving you can take the quicker I-5, the more scenic US-101, or if you want to make a lot of pit stops, Highway 99. The major airports in each region are Los Angeles Int'l Airport (LAX), and San Francisco Int'l Airport. However each has many other airports with direct flights between each region. They include Bob Hope Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and John Wayne Orange County in the LA region, and Mineta San Jose and Oakland Int'l in the Bay Area.

 ©Brian Stokle 2012

High Speed Rail: isn't that science fiction?

What most people have not done is take a high-speed train. That's not the fault of anyone. Most folks cannot afford a flight to Europe or Asia, and there's no real high-speed service in America. (Editor's opinion: Acela in the Northeast does not really count as high-speed since it only achieves its high speeds for a small fraction of its journey.) Without a track in place, the only alternative is to take high-speed rail in places like Japan, France, Turkey, Taiwan, or Spain. With most Californians lacking an HSR experience for comparison, the whole notion of high-speed rail as truly possible future reality is very hard to grasp. It seems "far off", something from "science fiction" like the monorail. Just imagine, before you ever flew in a plane, you would likely not fully grasp the amazing time savings, and even the dramatic feeling of flying so high, as well as the feeling of vulnerability having nowhere to go in the very rare instance of an accident.

The best we can do is create a comparative time chart. So we have set up a hypothetical journey from Downtown San Francisco to Downtown Los Angeles, from two food meccas: the Ferry Building and the Grand Central Market. Although the Grand Central Market has been open since 1917, it very likely has been eclipsed by the rebirth of the Ferry Building in 2003. Nevertheless, both markets are truly amazing from their cornucopia of food, and bustling energy.

With both markets located in each downtown, and a moderate walk or short transit ride to their respective train stations, they present reasonable origins and destinations for this comparison of modes. I.e. a typical business trip would be made from these two downtowns, while the two markets allow you to easily locate yourself in each downtown.

When we look at the comparison, the total time of travel is included. We look not only the scheduled flight or train journey, or the door to door driving time, but also the journey to the airport or train station, the security check-in, lounge wait, and luggage pickup at airports. Likewise, when driving the long journey, most people would take a meal break, and possibly a second pit stop to fill the tank or go to the restroom. Plus you need to find a place to park your car, whether you drove the whole way or got a rental at the airport (or train station).

Below we look at all four scenarios in detail.


Although the flight from SFO to LAX only takes 1 1/2 hours, the trips to and from the airport and passing through security make the true travel time well over three times as long: 5 hours and 20 minutes by our calculation. We assumed that our traveler would take a taxi from the Ferry Building to SFO, check in luggage, go through security, and wait an hour in the lounge. Some may only wait 45 minutes, but when potential SF fog delays, late flights or mechanical delays are considered, adding an extra 15 minutes is not unreasonable for a typical journey. When arriving in Los Angeles, we assumed that our traveler would pick up a rental car and drive to Downtown LA. Although LA has made great strides to improve its transit system with the Metro and the new Expo Line, it's not quite there regarding a comfortable and quick transit ride directly to Union Station or Downtown. Upon arriving in downtown, our traveler must find parking. Being unfamiliar with downtown, they may look for parking for 10 minutes, or need to park in a nearby garage. Finally, after 5 hours and 20 minutes, they make it to the Grand Central Market.
Courtesy: Jimmy Marguiles via


For driving, we factored in the previously mentioned pit stops; a 30 minute meal in Santa Nella (split pea soup anyone?), and a quick break at Grapevine, that cluster of restaurants and gas stations at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains south of Bakersfield. Before actually getting started, our eager traveler had to walk from the Ferry Building to a nearby garage to get their car. The Ferry Building has no parking on site.

We assumed the journey would take a bit longer due to traffic; 40 minutes extra to be exact. Google Maps indicates the journey along I-5 would normally take 6 hours and 25 minutes, but traffic on either end can easily add 12 1/2 minutes on each end. At the end, we assume a quick 5-minute parking time and 5-minute walk to the market.

Courtesy RaymondYu

High-Speed Rail - Fully Built

When (and if) high-speed rail is fully built as planned, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the travel time is expected to be 2 hours and 40 minutes. The great advantage of high-speed rail is obviously its speed, but also its convenient locations near center cities where a person can easily walk or take transit to the station. In our scenario, we have our traveler taking the 10-minute walk from the Ferry Building to the rebuilt Transbay Terminal.

At the train station, our traveler arrives about 15 minutes before the departure time to make sure they are not late. Passing through the labyrinth of downtown crowds and escalators and finding your train car can take at least 10 minutes from the entrance of the station. Upon arrival, our traveler has a comfortable 5 minutes before the train leaves. If, as has been considered, a security check a la airport security, is required, an additional 20 minutes are added on to go through security and 10-40 more minutes waiting in the lounge considering you never know how long security may take. The question of having a security checkpoint for high speed rail is an important one for maintaining safety and a convenient service. This issue will be discussed in a later post.

The direct high-speed journey, although not part of the current business plan, would take the previously mentioned 2 hours and 40 minutes, and leave passengers at Los Angeles' art deco Union Station. There, our passenger takes a direct bus to Broadway and arrives at the market in a quick 5 minutes.

High Speed Rail - The Blended Plan

Although this scenario is the quickest, it is less likely to happen in the near term or the next 25 years. So we have included a time scenario using the "blended" approach that would have the high-speed train vehicle start in Oakland. Being in Oakland, our San Francisco traveler must take a shuttle bus to the Emeryville Station, just like today's Amtrak passengers. In Emeryville, they would board a sleek, modern and very comfortable high speed train. Although the tracks from Oakland to Merced would not be true high speed, planned upgrades would shorten the time compared to today's travel time. We have conservatively estimated a 10% time savings over current Amtrak San Joaquin times between stations.

After Merced, the train would enter the high-speed tracks where the train could go its full 200-220 mph speed along the flat San Joaquin Valley. After Bakersfield, the high-speed tracks would continue over Tehachapi Pass through tunnels and over bridges. Finally, in Palmdale, the train would switch back to "normal" slow tracks, continuing its tango down to Los Angeles on upgraded slow tracks that we have estimated at a 10% time improvement. Finally, as in the "Fully Built HSR" scenario, our traveler would take a bus to the Grand Central Market from Union Station. In all, the journey would take 5 hours and 55 minutes. That's only 35 minutes longer than flying.

You may be wondering now, "Then what's all the fuss over high speed rail?" It's no better than flying under the early stage "blended" plan. But even under this plan it is much better than flying for several reasons:
  1. Traveling by high-speed train allows for a single journey that is not broken up by long and stressful breaks in the journey to check in luggage, go through security, and pick up luggage. Nor is it far from city centers requiring a long taxi, shuttle or subway ride to the airport. Instead, being so close to where the most people live and work, the journey is very comfortable, and more productive, whether a person works on the train, takes a long nap, or has a great conversation with a friend. 
  2. Train journeys are more comfortable due to the experience on the train. On a train you can get up, and walk around any time! You can go to the lounge car to pick up a snack when you're hungry, or go to the bathroom when you need to go, and not be blocked by a drink cart. Less discussed, but almost more important, plane cabins have a low humidity and are less comfortable. The pressurized cabin also has an approximate air pressure similar to 7,000 feet elevation. At this pressure, the quality of food is lower since our taste buds cannot work as well, and we are often more fatigued due to the pressure, low humidity, (and cramped seating). With trains, you are at the same humidity and air pressure as the ground conditions. Much more comfortable. 
  3. A less tangible element is the anxiety of flying. Although most people are not afraid of flying to a phobic level, it can still be a stressful experience, especially during take off and landing. High-speed trains speed up and slow down more smoothly than planes and are on the ground. Our primate mind feels more comfortable when we look out the window and see the ground we can easily walk to. Although a high-speed train accident would be quite deadly, not as severe as a plane, it is more the fact that we can see the ground that puts us more at ease. Finally, high-speed trains are ultra safe. Although flying is very safe, high-speed trains are even safer.
  4. Lastly, as promoted by high-speed rail advocates, California is a growing state. We don't have ability to keep widening freeways, or adding runways. Most of our cities are built up around them. Adding a runway at LAX or SFO would be incredibly costly, and go through a long and drawn out environmental review in which many local and regional residents would fight the building of a runway or widening of a freeway. Regardless of the regional and state needs for transport, this process would be much more expensive than building HSR. 
That's it for part 2. There will be a part 3 where we examine the alternative to building phase 1 over the Tehachapis instead of Pacheco Pass or through the San Joaquin Valley. We will also look into the implications of the new plan and how it will affect trains coming into the Bay Area and their routing now that the Pacheco Pass route will not open for some time. SPUR has put together a summary of the new plan and its implications, including critical questions about how trains will get from the Central Valley to the Bay Area and its three major centers.

San Francisco Ferry Building
Photo: Amanda Marsalis via
Grand Central Market
Courtesy: Gastronomy Blog


  1. This is such a great post. I am really excited for HSR to come to California and you've done a great job putting it in perspective with existing modes of transportation.

    It would be interesting to see the travel times for the two HSR scenarios broken down into legs or arrivals at specific checkpoints and to somehow differentiate between the different travel speeds. I'm fascinated with the idea of being able to travel at higher speeds during longer stretches between metro areas, compared to the relatively constant speed of driving and to a certain extent flying (at cruising altitude at least). You sort of go into it in the Blended Plan section and at the end of the Drive section, but it would be interesting to see the concept illustrated and extended to all four scenarios.

  2. Anything is better then driving I-5. I've traveled HSR in Japan and France, its great. I have also done two seat HSR and a Raildiesel local in France and Swiss rail, it was still more relaxing then Air travel in France. Eitherway, HSR in California should avoid existing Railroad Passes, and build there own, using Tunnels, preferable, to achieve the true as close as possiable to the 2 hour 40 minute travel times.


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